Surveys: Young Adults Search Spiritually
April 13, 2005 5:24PM ET By JUSTIN POPE, AP Education Writer
For some young adults, spirituality goes hand in hand with religious practice. For others, it is a substitute. Regardless, young Americans are actively engaged in spiritual questions, two new surveys indicate, even if they may not be exploring them in traditional ways.
One of the surveys, of more than 100,000 freshmen who started college last fall, found four in five reporting an interest in spirituality, with three in four searching for meaning or purpose in life, and the same proportion discussing the meaning of life with friends.
The students starting college expected their institutions to help them explore such questions. And while an even higher proportion, more than 90 percent, said they expect their college to prepare them for employment, the authors noted that the results challenge the view of young Americans as crassly materialistic.
"They are looking inwardly and they are searching for ways to cultivate their inner selves," said Helen Astin, professor emeritus of higher education and a senior scholar UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, which produced the survey of college freshman released Wednesday in Washington. A separate survey of 1,325 18-25 year-olds released earlier this week by Reboot, a Jewish networking group, and several collaborating organizations, emphasizes the degree to which young people are confronting religious issues informally, through conversations and even Christian rock music rather than formal religious practice.
While 44 percent of respondents called themselves "religious," 35 percent said they are "spiritual but not religious" and 18 percent said neither. At Roanoke College, in Salem, Va., where he has been chaplain for more than 20 years, Paul Henrickson said he is quite familiar with the "spiritual but not religious" phenomenon.
"You have a lot of kids that understand in their hearts that there is a mystery about life that is larger than they are and larger than they understand, and they would call that 'spiritual.' And they are very interested in that," Henrickson said. But, he added, "they pursue that in private ways" and "in kind of a shotgun approach. They'll look at all kinds of things from Eastern religions to yoga to New Age stuff to the standard Christianity. But they are unlikely to have that solid commitment to a religious institution (like) church membership."
Still, many students view spirituality as a complement to their religious beliefs. In the UCLA survey, for instance, Mormons, Baptists and nontraditional Christians all exhibited high degrees of both spirituality and religious engagement as measured by such things as praying, attending services and reading sacred texts. Students exhibiting high religious engagement were more likely to have conservative social views, though some issues like the death penalty and affirmative action do not conform to the pattern.
"It's very difficult to put people in boxes," Astin said in a telephone interview.
The survey's authors challenged American colleges and universities to be more responsive to the spiritual hunger of their students. They said previous studies have indicated older college students are disappointed with how infrequently they have been challenged to think about "meaning of life" issues in class.
UCLA plans to check back with the students when they are juniors; for now, the survey says nothing about the effects of college because it captures students at the very beginning of their college careers. HERI's previous studies have found students' participation in organized religion fell during their college years, though interest in spiritual questions persists.
But the studies and other data suggest the late teens are a time when serious contemplation of spiritual issues begins.
Previous research by Chris Smith, a University of North Carolina sociologist and adviser to the UCLA study, found 13-17 year-olds are highly conventional in their religious practices, following how they were raised. But just 9 percent of the UCLA respondents said they felt compelled to follow their parents' religious practice. While 42 percent described themselves as "secure" in their spiritual and religious views, 10 percent said they were "doubting," 23 percent "seeking" and 15 percent "conflicted" (respondents could choose more than one response).
College students, Smith said, "are starting to branch out somewhat in their thinking and their exploring."